Students are trapped by the politics of anti-migration

In the United Kingdom and much of Europe we are in an anti-migration phase. International students, who provide half of the migration count, are currently trapped by the politics of anti-migration. This diminishes the value of their experience and their education.

Public concerns and resentments are not directed primarily at international students. The main anxieties are about illegal migration, not legal immigration, and about asylum seekers and refugees.

In the UK, public opinion about migration fluctuates. Migration creates net benefits for economic output and jobs but triggers recurring xenophobia, especially during recessions. Support for migration rises and falls in medium-term waves of several years' duration.

The present anti-migration phase will pass and greater tolerance of migration will return, but we do not know when.

Opposing principles

The underlying cause of these fluctuations is the tension between two opposing and irresolvable principles: the right of all persons to be globally mobile, and the right of national populations - if a right it is - to declare a piece of Earth their exclusive property and control it.

More generally, the tension is between universal human rights and nation-bound polities. The tension between, on the one hand, the slow, inexorable process of globalisation and the formation of world society, global convergence and integration, and on the other hand, the nation-state form of governance.

We are globalising communications and culture, and commodities and markets, but have not yet created a global polity. And so mobile non-citizens, like international students, are stripped of adequate rights and protections in a nation-bound world.

This tension between nation and mobility will not go away. The UK needs globally mobile students - it is a near GBP20 billion (US$33 billion) export sector. The UK needs to educate students who as graduates will play important roles in government, the professions and business in fast-rising powers and emerging states.

And demand for international education will keep on rising. OECD data show that the number of students studying outside their country of citizenship grew from 1.1 million in 1980 and 1.3 million in 1990, just before the internet began and globalisation gathered pace, to 2.1 million in 2000, 4.1 million in 2010 and 4.3 million in 2011, the most recent year for which we have data.

Demand is fuelled by the worldwide growth of the middle-class, especially in China and India. The number of middle-class people in Asia - people living on US$100 or more a day - is expected to rise from 600 million in 2010 to more than three billion in 2030. It will multiply five times in 20 years.

Middle-class families want further and higher education for their children. Regardless of the quality of home institutions, in a globalising world there will always be some who will see advantages in education abroad. For the foreseeable future, that primarily means education in English language countries, though this may not be true forever.

Myths about international students

International students constitute a major export sector, the largest component of immigration and a large presence in British cities. But their conditions of life are little understood. The issues and problems they face are scarcely glimpsed.

International students are not 'us', they are 'others'. The UK mostly believes it has nothing to learn from these newcomers and does not want to know. Myths about international students stand in place of fact and reason.


The myth that international education is demand-driven and can only be understood in the language and logic of markets, consumers and student satisfaction surveys.

In the short-term to medium-term international student numbers are supply driven, not demand driven. The UK is a high status destination, in higher education at least. The number of international students is determined not by demand but by decisions on visas, by the noises made by government and by the actions of UK Visas and Immigration, or UKVI.

As I have shown, there will always be enough potential students. World demand exceeds the supply of places. However, in the longer term, within total world demand, the pattern of country selection can change.

After 9/11 the United States bore down heavily on students from the Middle East and East Asia and the drop in supply was followed by a shift in demand to the UK. The UK's immigration regime could push demand away, especially among high achieving students, given that the US under President Barack Obama now offers a broader doorway.

The myth that international students are sufficiently protected by a consumer rights regime.

Consumer protection is important but it covers only a minority of the issues and problems that international students face. Students are more than consumers. Consumer protection offers little when international students are exploited in housing and the workplace, and less when they are subject to racial abuse in the bus and on the street.

The myth that the main national benefits are economic.

International students generate business to be sure, but they are also high calibre temporary immigrants and potential permanent migrants, and the source of long-term international linkages, intelligent workers, social and cultural enrichment, and STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - and research talent.

They also offer the potential for an international and intercultural learning experience in higher and further education, though as yet this educational potential is scarcely developed.

The myth that international students take more from the UK than they give.

International students not only pay higher fees than local students and pay them upfront, most of them work at some stage during their studies. Like local citizens they pay taxes. But they are denied local public benefits. They have no symmetry between tax and spend and no political rights.

The myth that international students are wealthy.

I have talked about the global middle-class. But all things are relative and middle-class in Cairo or Delhi or Dhaka or Phnom Penh does not always translate into middle-class UK at the prevailing purchasing power parities.

Perhaps a third of international students are relatively affluent, a third are very poor, and a third are struggling in between - proportions broadly similar to those that stratify the local student population. Except that for the most part very poor international students have less support close by than very poor local students.

The myth that international students have come here to be like us.

No doubt the idea of international students trying to conceal themselves as fake Britons feeds immigration fears. My own research on international students convinces me that they want to learn all they can in the country of education.

They want to improve their language skills, learn from the educational programme and lift their employability, while continuing to be themselves.

Most international students maintain strong ties to their home even while their education advances and their personal identity shifts and changes, as human identities always do in a prolonged period of mobility.

More generally, the research literature shows that there is no correlation between academic success, and the degree of cultural distance between home country and the UK. Students from Post-Confucian or African cultures often do very well.

The myth that international students are weak human agents in social, linguistic and educational deficit.

On the contrary most international students are strong human agents - they have to be. The barriers are often enormous. They are far from family and customary supports. They have much to learn and must learn it fast.

Yet on the whole they meet the challenges in a short time, with some, though not always enough, help, and do as well academically as locals. Their achievements are simply amazing.

Issues and problems students face

What are the barriers that international students face?

We are familiar with the problems. The research evidence too is in, although solutions are often less clear.

Problems of a complex and expensive visa process in the UK, more complex than that in many other countries. Problems of financial sustainability and emergency support. Problems of restricted work rights and high exploitation in the workplace.

The many students forced to work outside their visa limitations find it impossible to challenge exploitative hours and wages and sexual harassment in the workplace. A case of an ineffective regulatory regime both fostering injustice and negating itself.

Problems of the scaling back of work rights after graduation, in order to reduce the potential for migration applications. This foolishly discourages high calibre people at both the beginning of the degree and the point of migration.

Why can't immigration regimes be devised that more effectively identify people who benefit the country? Why do we have to hit everyone at once? Problems of lack of information and appalling living conditions in the housing market, where landlord surveillance of non-European Union students, as required by UKVI, cuts into their capacity to seek redress.

Problems of inadequate support for some students in their efforts to acquire academic English, and linguistic isolation in local communities. Problems of growing surveillance under the present government and the increasingly discriminatory policy on non-EU students, especially but not only in the further education sector.

For example, the government has extended interviews to the majority of Tier 4 applicants with a particular targeting of students from the sub-continent. It is there that immigration rackets have flourished. In rightly cracking down on abuses of temporary entry and student status, government should focus less on the students themselves and more on the migration businesses and bogus colleges, in the UK and when intersecting with authorities abroad.

Again, a regime designed to capture illegal students has been universalised to all students, so that all non-EU nationals face possible discriminatory treatment on the basis of birth. The worst possible outcome. It is expensive and draconian and lowers the nation before the world. Discrimination against non-EU nationals should be eliminated.

Ways forward

However, changes in UKVI policy, while necessary, are still caught in the underlying tension between mobility and the nation-state.

I am convinced that the way out of this bind, in which we are hostage to fluctuations in public feelings about foreigners, is to broaden the meanings of 'public', and to diminish the distance between foreigners and nationals. It is to move towards a more global and cosmopolitan approach to human rights and citizenship, step by step.

I suggest four kinds of initiative:

First, home country governments like India and China have a potential role in the protection of their student citizens abroad. This role can be exercised in collaboration with the UK and other governments in the country of education.

Student-sending countries might negotiate with student-receiving governments a set of protocols concerning the rights and protections of mobile students.

These protocols could be developed with reference to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with provisions in student-specific domains such as education, housing and intercultural relations and protection from discrimination.

If enough such agreements are reached on a bilateral basis, this begins to create sufficient momentum for an informal global standard subject to widespread policy imitation. Nations that abstain from the process could be named and shamed.

With each nation turning its education system into a more globally responsible space, through the incremental process of voluntary agreement, we begin to construct a formal regime of international student security and rights.

Second, the UK government should take temporary entrants such as international students out of the immigration targets. Immigration targets should be about long-term migrants, where the implications for economic cost-benefit and cultural mix are different.

By leaving international students - temporary immigrants of a year or more - in the common pot labelled 'migration' and long-term demographic change, the UK government unnecessarily exposes them to xenophobia, and student visa policy to clumsy restrictions.

Third, and more advanced, the nation could extend to non-citizen international students, on a temporary basis for the period of the visa, the same rights and entitlements as apply to citizen students, and remove the existing differentials, such as the National Health System poll tax that international students must now pay.

There may be some areas where continuing differentials are warranted, such as tuition loan arrangements, given that most international students will leave the country after graduation.

But broad equivalence with local citizens would be a crucial step. It minimises the outsider element in the student experience. Note that equivalence between international and local students does not mean that the need for particularised services and supports disappears. If international students are to exercise fuller rights, such services are essential, especially in the early months.

Fourth, and finally, we should delegate real authority to a global regulatory agency that can protect and advance the rights of cross-border students, working in conjunction with national jurisdictions. This would mean that in some sense international students would be recognised as 'global citizens'.

The formation of such a global regulatory agency would recognise that together, the different national populations are an emerging world society. We would begin to move towards a global polity, based on blending the principal political cultures, in which universal human rights would be coupled to regional, national and local variations.

The world is becoming more mobile. We can see the current potential for refugees in the tragic breakdown of political order in Syria, the Sudan and Nigeria. We see further down the road the potential for climate refugees, for example in low-lying Bangladesh with its 160 million people.

The way we treat international students has more general implications for the way we handle mobile populations. International students are mostly part of the global middle-class and they are wanted by their country of education.

Classically human rights and recognition of political agency begin with the middle-class and move out to become universal, as with extension of the suffrage. The treatment of mobile students can set a good precedent.

Ultimately it will be necessary to de-nationalise, globalise and humanise international student rights. The bedrock of a just student rights regime is not national strategic interest or economic interest, but a global humanism in which every person is understood as a self-determining subject and worthy of equal respect.

We are on the cutting edge of vital issues.

If there is a future for humanity it lies with universal rights and the tolerant, cosmopolitan acceptance of difference. Our determination to do right, the courage of our convictions, moving ahead of a government looking backwards to parochial elements, is the only way forward.

* Simon Marginson is a professor of international higher education in the Institute of Education at the University of London. He previously worked at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. This article is a slightly edited version of a speech he gave to a National Union of Students conference in Milton Keynes on 12 March.